Diversity and Democracy

Lest We Forget: Continuing Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ Legacy of Fostering Social Change

Since their inception, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have served as proving grounds for redressing our nation’s disenfranchisement of Black people from the everyday rights and responsibilities of American life. The first HBCU, now called Cheney University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837, and the number of HBCUs increased following the abolition of slavery. HBCUs were initially established to provide scaffolded instruction to free Black people. In 1890, the second Morrill Act required states in which higher education was segregated to offer land grants on which to build colleges and universities specifically for Black students. Today, more than one hundred public and private HBCUs offer Black students access to opportunities not otherwise available. 

However, in addition to producing most of the nation’s Black professionals (including doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors), HBCUs are preeminent producers (and incubators) of civically engaged students who lead fights for civil rights and social justice. Of course, when considering the civic legacies of HBCUs, one need not struggle to identify visible figures like Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia); Ella Baker (Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina); and Bayard Rustin (Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and Cheney University in Cheney, Pennsylvania). But, lest we forget, innumerable others, through their collective civic participation, undergird HBCU students’ longstanding tradition of organized resistance. For example, on May 26, 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, both Black women students at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU), sat down in the “Whites only” section of a segregated bus in Tallahassee, Florida. After they refused to move to the “colored” section, the bus driver pulled into a service station and called the local police, who arrested Jakes and Patterson for “placing themselves in a position to ‘incite a riot’” (Ensley 2016). Subsequently, a cross burning at Jakes and Patterson’s residence escalated racial tensions and spurred FAMU students to boycott the public bus system.

The Tallahassee Bus Boycott, as it would later be known, was among the largest boycott campaigns in the Jim Crow South. Similar to the 1953 boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of which students at Southern University were an integral part, and the better-known 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, the campaign in Tallahassee marked a time in history when HBCU students were crucial to sociopolitical change. The well-documented sit-ins by students from Greensboro’s North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (now a university) at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1960s further affirm HBCU college students’ role in igniting national campaigns of civil disobedience against injustice. Yet, as both state and federal policymakers pose questions regarding the continued relevance of HBCUs, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, it is important to reflect on the historical and contemporary roles of encouraging student participation in political activities.

HBCUs and Social Justice Advocacy Today

How should HBCUs continue to support and develop civically engaged advocates for social justice? In an address at the United Negro College Fund’s 2019 Career Pathways Initiative Annual Convening, Phillip Agnew, former student body president and graduate of FAMU, spoke about how instrumental his college experience was to his current advocacy and activism. “Sometime around my sophomore year, [Daryl Parks], a mentor of mine, who I look up to a great deal, another graduate of [FAMU], told me that as a student at [FAMU], I was part of a long lineage and history of people who had considered themselves a part of a community,” Agnew said. He went on to discuss meeting with Parks and other student leaders from nearby colleges and universities to watch a videotape recording in which guards at a juvenile-detention boot camp in Bay County, Florida, kicked, hit, and forced a Black fourteen-year-old named Martin Lee Anderson to inhale ammonia. Anderson died the next day, January 6, 2006. Agnew continued, paraphrasing Parks’ message to him, “You’re the student government leader at Florida A&M University. . . . It is your role, your duty to do something.” Following the campus-community organizing efforts of students led by Agnew and others, seven Bay County guards and one nurse were ultimately charged with aggravated manslaughter, only to be later acquitted.

Agnew, who cofounded the Dream Defenders in 2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin and served as its co-director until 2018, told the anecdote to an audience of HBCU presidents and senior leaders to explain how integral their institutions are in cultivating radical thinking and practice. In particular, Agnew noted, “The universities that we all attend, that we all love, have a particular purpose, not just in the communities that surround them, but [for] the sanctity of our democracy.” Agnew charged HBCUs to resist the rising tide of neoliberal higher education in exchange for returning to their founding commitments of defying the status quo. In particular, he urged them to reject the shift of postsecondary institutions toward an overemphasis on profit generation, corporate partnerships, and STEM fields at the expense of more holistic educational experiences consistent with liberal arts training.

Agnew called into question how niche investments in particular curricular areas, athletic and social facilities, and socially conservative practices (Mobley and Johnson 2019) often undermine the broader democratic role and responsibility unique to HBCUs. To be sure, Agnew acknowledged similar shifts toward market-driven behaviors in higher education more broadly. Further, as HBCUs are particularly challenged by precarious donors, stretched endowments, and declining state appropriations and federal funding, these institutions find themselves having to navigate political terrain with deferential care to secure institutional sustainability.  Nevertheless, for the minoritized students HBCUs serve, a balanced investment in civic programs and initiatives, however difficult, is not impossible.

Supporting Student Advocates

As applications and enrollments at HBCUs continue to rise, largely in response to the toxic—and sometimes violent—racial climates at many predominantly White institutions, HBCUs are uniquely positioned to receive and further cultivate incoming students who are already politically engaged. What is more, Black women at Atlanta’s Spelman College and LGBTQIA+ students at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, continue to advocate for recognizing and supporting HBCU students minoritized based on gender and sexual orientation. Within the broader sociopolitical contexts of the Movement for Black Lives, the #MeToo movement, and, most recently, #DefundPolice protests, HBCU students are continuing to demonstrate leadership through their activism on campus and beyond.

For these reasons, supporting HBCU students’ political engagement requires educators to recognize the critical role they can play in improving students’ political efficacy and affirming their desires to radically reimagine school and society. We cannot overstate the importance of institutions providing access to the resources and infrastructure necessary to ensure students and their movements can achieve their political goals. We find this is especially urgent for HBCUs near Black communities deeply affected by the injustices of police killings, everyday racial violence, and disparate health outcomes during the COVID-19 crisis. Just as students at North Carolina A&T State University recognized the need to take on segregationist practices through the sit-in movement, today’s HBCU student activists continue to actively challenge racist structures, systems, and practices affecting their communities. They understand that, to paraphrase Assata Shakur (1973), loving and supporting each other is the only way our duty to fight for freedom can deliver on the promise of our duty to win. And we must use this same idea to reframe the campus-community relationship, one that remains critical to higher education serving the interests of the Black public. For when Black institutions, people, and communities are mutually invested in each other, their social and political relevance cannot be debated.


Ensley, Gerald. 2016. “The Ride to Equality Started 60 Years Ago. Tallahassee Democrat, May 20, 2016. https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2016/05/20/bus-boycott-60-years-later/84546580/.

Mobley, Steve D., Jr., and Jennifer M. Johnson. 2019. “‘No Pumps Allowed’: The ‘Problem’ with Gender Expression and the Morehouse College ‘Appropriate Attire Policy.’” Journal of Homosexuality 66 (7): 867–95.

Shakur, Assata. 1973. “To My People.” http://assata-shakur.blogspot.com/2006/02/assata-shakur-to-my-people.html.

Charles H. F. Davis III is Assistant Professor of Higher Education, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at University of Michigan; Felecia Commodore is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Old Dominion University; and Kyah King is a Doctoral Student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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